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I can well understand how controversial this novel was when it was first published. Overall it is a vicious portrayal of small town France. Most of the characters are revealed to be self-seeking and vain. At the heart of the story is Emma Bovary - and Flaubert is, I feel, ambivalent in his attitude to her. He sometimes describes her very favourably and at others as selfish hard-hearted. And we as readers share this ambivalence - is she a cruel temptress who cares little for her own child or is she a victim of the social mores and unable to act independently? Certainly the book highlights how women of the time could only find happiness and fulfilment through a male partner.

The ending is prolonged and horrific. Was Flaubert hoping to attract our sympathy for the hapless Emma or was he ensuring that she was suitably punished for her infidelities?

The writing is splendid - surprisingly modern and beautifully descriptive. I am sorry I let this book sit unread on my bookshelf for so long?
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on 27 November 2009
Well, first let me say that I am 95% sure that I will never read this novel again. That is not to say that I'm not glad I read it, or that I disliked it particularly, more that I don't think I could put myself through it again.

It is a novel riddled with complex moral and social issues - and Emma Bovary is a complex anti-heroine. At times I felt sorry for her. She is a woman seeking something bigger for herself, something that her role as wife and mother can't offer her. But she is also a very silly character, reminding me somewhat of Catherine in Northanger Abbey in her futile pursuit of idle dreams. Every emotion coursing through her body is absolutely genuine and heartfelt - until disillusionment comes and it vapourises again. She is reaching for a love and a life that exists only in stories, a terminal case of greed, of always seeing that vibrant, greener grass on the other side of the fence, of vanity and utter selfishness. Yet have we not all occasionally felt unhappy with our lot in life? Can we not look around nowadays and see hundreds of selfish and deluded young people indulging their vanity and trying to win fame, fortune, more money, a richer partner?

All in all, a novel that is valuable for its portrayal of society in the 19th century, including its ideas about women, marriage and adultery, religion, and about medical theories and advances. The characters are strongly drawn and as real in their complex and flawed personalities as any I've ever read. It raises questions, it provokes thought about blame and morality, it parallels certain worrying trends that continue into today's society... and despite everything, I was moved by Emma's tragic demise. But I think the repetitive nature of the novel - mistake, regret, repentence, repeat - and the unlikeable, unredeemable nature of the title Madame will stop it being a keeper for me.
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on 30 November 2002
Making a statement like Madame Bovary is the "greatest" novel ever written would be superfluous. It could be argued that it is the most perfectly written novel in the history of letters and that in creating it, Flaubert mastered the genre. What can't be argued is that it is one of the most influential novels ever written. It changed the face of literature as no other novel has, and has been appreciated and acknowledged by virtually every important novelist who was either Flaubert's contemporary or who came after him.
It's interesting to see the range in opinion that still surrounds this novel. Some of the Readers here at Amazon are morally affronted by the novel's central character, viewing her as something sinister and "unlikeable," and panning the novel for this reason. Such a reaction recalls the negative reviews Bovary engendered soon after its initial publication. It was attacked by many of the authorities of French literature at the time for being ugly and perverse, and for the impression that the novel presented no properly moral frame. These readers didn't "like" Emma much either, and they took their dislike out on her creator.
But this is one of the factors making Madame Bovary "modern". One of the hallmarks of modern novels is that they often portray unsympathetic characters, and Emma certainly falls into this category. How can we as readers "like" a woman who elbows her toddler daughter away from her so forcefully that the child "fell against the chest of drawers, and cut her cheek on the brass curtain-holder." After this pernicious behavior, Emma has a few brief moments of self-castigation and maybe even remorse, but very soon is struck by "what an ugly child" Berthe is. Emma's self-centeredness borders on solipsism. For readers looking for maternal instincts in their female characters or for a depiction of a devoted wife, they had better turn to Pearl S. Buck and The Good Earth, perhaps, rather than to Flaubert.
Much has been made of Flaubert's attempts to remove himself from the narrative, that he was searching for some sort of ultimate objectivity. His narrative technique is much more complex than that, however. It is his employment of a shifting narrative, sometimes objective, sometimes subjective, that again is an indicator of the novel's modernity. At times the narrator is merely reporting events or is involved in providing descriptive details. Yet often the authorial voice makes rather plain how the reader is to look at Emma and her plebeian persona. When she finally succumbs to Rodolphe and thinks she is truly in love, Flaubert becomes downright cynical: " 'I've a lover, a lover,' she said to herself again and again, revelling in the thought as if she had attained a second puberty. At last she would know the delights of love, the feverish joys of which she had despaired. She was entering a marvelous world where all was passion, ecstasy, delirium."
Emma is a neurasthenic, in the modern sense, but in the 19th century she would have been said to suffer from hysteria, a mental condition diagnosed primarily in women. When her lovers leave her, she has what amounts to nervous breakdowns. After Rodolphe leaves her she makes herself so sick that she comes near death. Her imagination is much too powerful and too impressionable for her own good. This is part of the reason for Flaubert's oft-repeated quote, "Bovary, c'est moi." Flaubert was a neurasthenic as well and could easily work himself into a swoon as a result of his imaginative flights. There is even conjecture that he may have been, like Dostoevsky, an epileptic, and it is further intimated that this disorder was brought on by nerves, though this may be dubious, medically speaking.
Madame Bovary is not flawless, but it comes awfully close. It is one of the great controlled experiments in the fiction of any era. It even anticipates cinematic technique in many instances, but particularly in the scene at the Agricultural Fair. Note how Flaubert juxtaposes the utterly mundane activities and speeches occurring in the town square with Rodolphe's equally inane seduction of Emma in the empty Council Chamber above the square:
"He took her hand and she did not withdraw it."
"'General Prize!' cried the Chairman.'"
"'Just now, for instance, when I came to call on you...'"
"Monsieur Bizet of Quincampoix."
"'...how could I know that I should escort you here?'"
"Seventy francs!"
"'And I've stayed with you, because I couldn't tear myself away, though I've tried a hundred times.'"
"Manure!"
This is representative Flaubert. With a few deft strokes, he lays the whole absurdity of both the seduction and the provincial's activities bare.
If you have read this book previously and have come away feeling demoralized and even angered, please try reading it again, this time concentrating on the richness of its metaphors, Flaubert's mastery of foreshadowing, symbolism and description. Maybe you will come away with your viewpoint changed. For those who have not yet read this classic of classics, I know that if your mind remains open, you will come away with an appreciation for this master-novelist and for this monumental work.
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on 8 September 2015
The Kindle edition of this book is free. However, the translation is terrible - French words have been converted to English with little or no regard for English idiom. The Penguin version is written in much better English, and is a joy to read. However, if you try to buy the Penguin edition for your Kindle (78p - not a bad price for a classic of French literature, and well worth the extra cost compared with the rubbish Kindle version) the "Penguin" version offered in the real book switches to the unreadable Kindle version ! Why Amazon do this is a mystery to me. Perhaps they can explain why they think that having got the free edition and decided to pay 78p for a better version, they think people would be happy to get another version of the same rubbish.....
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on 12 May 2014
Tragic tale of a woman who is plagued by a kind of ennui reminiscent to that of Oliver Wilde’s character Dorian Gray and Kate Chopin’s character Edna Pontellier who are also infected by “the silent spider [that] weaves its web in the darkness in every corner of their hearts,” robbing them of their ability to enjoy the little things in life, leaving them feeling constricted by society and life’s endless monotony.

But it’s more than that. The disease from which Madame Bovary suffers—a slow petrification of the soul—is more than a boredom of life. It is the sense of entitlement and ingratitude that hardens her, making her a prisoner of her own insatiable passions, feeling she somehow deserves more, or deserves better, that even like the proverbial grass that appears greener on the other side, so does “the powdered sugar seem whiter and finer elsewhere.”

Poor Madame Bovary, who is a prisoner of her own making, too much time, too much idleness which she spends freely and destructively on searching for elusive things and a sense of deep fulfillment that can only come when we are thoroughly engrossed in giving of ourselves rather than taking; a life where the Ego is central to all, and thus dies, embittered and hardened. An affliction common to the bourgeoisie whom Gustave Flaubert was criticizing.

I wanted to dislike Emma. I wanted to judge her, place her inside a neat little box, and paste a big label on its exterior. But I could not. I felt a tremendous sadness for her, empathy even. Wanting her to somehow climb out of the abyss in which she had all too willingly plunged head first, after sliding down that slippery slope. My feelings for this woman are a testament to Gustave Flaubert’s skill, that while painting a portrait of this poor, wretched creature, he inspires compassion and empathy for her.

The book is a masterpiece. Gustave Flaubert chose each word with painstaking care, in hopes of eliciting precise responses from the reader. He is eloquent, descriptive, full of emotion and such heartbreaking beauty, a kind of faded splendor falling into decay like our Emma Bovary. For poor Emma, “every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.”

Nothing can soften the bitterness of her life. Passions wane, hope gives way to disappointment. For no matter what pleasure she pursues, what passion she embraces, nothing can save her from herself and the infection that slowly festers within her soul. She imagines men to be freer, yet her own husband is confined within his occupation, place in society, and drudgery of daily routines. Nothing satisfies the appetites of her caprices, nor drives away the growing contempt in her heart. She sees all of life and her future as a “dark corridor, with its door at the end shut fast.” She is like a shipwrecked sailor, turning “despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon”—a horizon that remains eternally elusive.

No, I could not hate Emma, as much as I wanted to, especially after reading scathing reviews that tore her apart, limb for limb, casting stones without a thought for the beams in their eyes. She is not something to be ridiculed, but pitied. She had a poverty of spirit, rather than a spirit of poverty, that left me weeping for her in the end.

We all have some of Madame Bovary within us. And perhaps that is what I found so disconcerting. It is our insatiable human condition that leaves us searching for the wrong things to satisfy appetites which cannot be satisfied by their very nature. It is a lesson in the harsh realities of this life and the consequences of our choices. And perhaps too, it is a lesson in humility and compassion.
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on 2 August 2012
Certain books can determine my emotions to a surprising, slightly scary extent: it's as if the outside world was covered by the book's phantom world. Of course I don't actually start behaving as if I was inside the book - that would give rise to many interesting situations, though -, but I create analogies between my surroundings and the book's mood. Madame Bovary, with its flawless writing, is one such book. I have to say I am glad I have finished it, because it made my reality dull, claustrophobic and nauseating while I was reading it - just like the world of this book.

Don't get me wrong: this is a compliment to the book's power to reach deep inside the reader, make him or her connect to the characters and explore the social setting and, from there, question his or her life choices. It is a classic for many good reasons and I recommend reading it, but it is definitely not a story to leave a smile on you face. Much to the contrary.

As you probably already know, it tells the tragic story of Emma Bovary, a doctor's wife in provincial late-eighteenth century France, trapped by social convention and eaten away by boredom (ennui, in the original French - just because it is closer to the texture of the original). Emma, raised in Romanticism, marries Charles, a doctor who is lacking in intelligence or charm (but who would do anything for her; despite his stupidity, he has a good heart), and, disappointed and bored with her life, takes two lovers (though not at the same time): Rudolphe, a charming member of the nobility who never sees her as a human being capable of feeling, and Leon, a young clerk who she is able to manipulate while the affair lasts. She is not a sympathetic heroine: she spends away the money she doesn't have, neglects her husband and daughter, and eventually wrecks their lives. She lives in a fantasy world and is unable to deal with the dull reality around her. Her actions are determined by her cultural background - she is a victim of Romanticism and of her illusions as much as of the dullness of bourgeois society.

All the same, there is an ambiguity in the way Flaubert treats Emma: he seems to both despise and admire her at the same time. At the time, women enjoyed very little freedom, so Emma's adultery and consumerism are, in a way, brave attempts to escape from her stifling social position. The book masterfully transmits why Emma so wants to escape: the detailed scenes of provincial life are described with unbearable realism, rendering the shallow and dull nature of each and every character (including, alas, Emma Bovary) painfully evident. Flaubert's perfect style - filled with irony, able to reflect the characters' mental state, with each word carefully chosen and placed for maximum effect on the reader - greatly contributes for this effect, and is deserving of every accolade. Though the sentence construction is so well-achieved that it is a source of aesthetic beauty, it must be noted that the nausea pervading the book is achieved through a focus on human ugliness, including quite a few detailed, unflinching descriptions of physical defects and illness. These intensify our sense of the moral and cultural decay of the bourgeoisie, in particular, of the leading character, and force us to confront our own dissatisfaction, illusions and choices.

After all, Emma is killed by the weight of her fantasies, excessive for her own weak character and for the smallness of society around her:

"N'importe! elle n'était pas heureuse, ne l'avait jamais été. D'où venait donc cette insuffisance de la vie, cette pourriture instantenée des choses où elle s'appuyait?... Mas, s'il y avait quelque part un être fort et beau, une nature valeureuse, pleine à la fois d'exaltation et de raffinements, un coeur de poète sous une forme d'ange, lyre aux cordes d'airain, sonnant vers le ciel des épithalames élégiaques, pourquoi, par hasard, ne le trouverait-elle pas? Oh! Quelle impossibilité! Rien, d'ailleurs, ne valait la peine d'une recherche; tout mentait! Chaque sourire cachait un bâillement d'ennui, chaque joie une malédiction, tout plaisir son dégoût, ot les meilleurs baisers ne vous laissaient sur la lèvre qu'une irréalisable envie d'une volupté plus haute."

The fault is is herself, as member of a society she rejects but is unable to fully evade. "Love" fails to save her: there are no magical solutions for existential boredom, which comes from deep inside. Only through facing our own illusions and surroundings and developing our own character can we ever find a form of peace and happiness, though that will probably be very different from the one which resides in our fantasies.

Madame Bovary is a brilliant book, very rich in both ideas and style and extremely influential (looking back, there are echoes of Emma's tragedy in every tale of suburban dullness).

You can find my book reviews at [...]
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on 24 February 2016
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary

It took Flaubert five years to write the book, coming after he gave up his law studies and his travels through the Middle East (1849-51). When it first appeared in parts, published in the Revue de Paris, the content shocked so many readers that the government brought the author to trial. But he was acquitted and the storm established his reputation and the book was finally published in 1857. He could be said to have opened the floodgates to the progress of the genre as far as subject matter and treatment are concerned. The cool acceptance of Emma’s adultery was unprecedented at the time. Today, 150 years on, it would be quite normal and it is indeed difficult for us, in the wake of Hardy, DH Lawrence and Joyce to see what all the fuss was about.

Emma is seen from her own perspective, while Flaubert himself remains neutral, adopting the oratia obliqua or indirect technique of character portrayal. ‘She kept saying to herself over and over again, “I have a lover, a lover.a lover.” And of the church choir, ‘And their voices, their beautiful voices …’ But between these ecstatic outpourings there’s always the regret, the dullness of life alone with good, simple Charles, the rain, the mud, the sheer boredom, until her schemes, dreams and final recklessness almost drive her into the arms of the cunning linen draper, the repulsive Mr L’heureux. But no, no, no, she would sooner die …

As ever precise details convince the reader utterly. Realism was now in the ascendency and Flaubert’s friends - Turgenev, Zola and George Sand - shared this obsession, and would have approved Flaubert-cum-Emma’s fidelity to the way things are: the pampered but neglected dog, the path to the cemetary through the wood, and the only dark place for the lovers, Emma’s garden.
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on 24 July 2013
I approached this novel having already tasted something of Flaubert's richly descriptive prose in 'November', a book I would certainly recommend. This book is far more layered than that enjoyable ode to youthful obsession; it stretches across many themes, though overall I view it as a story of juxtaposition on many levels.

This is borne out in the hypocrisy which permeates the novel, positively rising from the page, as Flaubert consummately undermines the faux-sincerity of middle-class provincial life; in a society where appearances are almost everything. Without wishing to go too deeply into the storyline, there are also intriguing themes arranged around Madame Bovary herself which conflict with eachother constantly; conformity / personal fulfilment, marriage / sexuality representing a small example. The novel successfully portrays a very realistic human character, a woman in possession of raging passions we may feel a range of emotions towards as the novel progresses. When asked of his inspiration for this unforgettable character, Flaubert replied "Madame Bovary, c'est moi". Apart from sounding far more enigmatic in French, this remark reveals something of the author's personal 'complexities', which are also touched upon in the well-written introduction to the novel.

I highly recommend this book. It does not require an iron will to stick with it until it becomes interesting; rather, it coaxes you in to the story, into Yonville itself, until you find yourself chuckling with recognition at some small observation Flaubert sardonically throws out about one of the many inhabitants. I enjoyed reading this book for many different reasons - the delicious irony, the beautiful (and at times haunting) imagery and, of course, simply for the engaging story of a restless butterfly -(edit - plot spoiler!)... I'm sure you will find your own reasons to love this novel too.
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on 2 December 2013
I bought the paperback years ago then lost it, so now I have it on Kindle. The intro is remarkably detailed and interesting, but... Do you want some expert telling you what to think before you've read the first page? It's a bit like those audio guides you can hire in an art gallery: we're all entitled to wander round making up our own minds, however daft the conclusions may be.

It would be OK if the translation measured up to the quality of the intro, but it doesn't. Yes, it's accurate, but yet again it shows you can't assume an academic is best qualified just because he writes well about it. Contrary to what you might think, the two tasks need different talents. You can't set off on your translating journey trusting Flaubert to carry you through like some reliable old nag, or you'll come a cropper. So Prof Wall is accurate, and the story gets told, but where's the lyricism, the style to match Flaubert when it's needed? Where's the Shakespearean attention to the sounds of the words, the assonance and alliteration, none of which is needed in an intro? This isn't a diesel generator brochure, it's probably the greatest novel ever written, and the reason for that is the way it is written. Wall may well feel this, but why can't he convey it to the vulnerable reader?

Perhaps the answer is to buy this for the intro, though whose translation you get I don't know. They all have their faults, most of all the wretched Marx-Aveling. She's everywhere.

Forgive me. I'm becoming a Flaubert anorak. But then, he's that good. He deserves the best. Maybe this is:

"She longed for a son; he would be strong and dark; she would call him Georges; and this idea of having a male child was a sort of hoped-for revenge for all her past impotence.

"A man at least is free, but a woman is forever precluded. Constrained yet malleable, she is opposed by both the softness of her flesh and the demands of the law. Her will, like the veil on her hat tied with a cord, flaps in the slightest breeze. There is always some desire to entice, some convention to restrain." (Translation by Keith Barnes)
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on 16 August 2011
Attention - this review only applies to the kindle version (its merits and faults).
I do not want to go into the details of the book itself: 'Madame Bovary' is a classic and rightly so, whatever you think about the characters and their motivations. I also thought the translation was good (I don't know the original, but it flowed well and did not appear slipshod).
The way Penguin have transferred it onto kindle is basically excellent and it's good to have a critical text with an introduction and notes available on kindle for the more serious and interested reader. What I particularly like about the Penguin kindle versions is that all notes are hyperlinked, so when a note comes up, you just have to move the cursor to it, click and you get to the note. A press of the back button takes you back to where you were reading. Very simple and VERY user-friendly.
My only quibble (which cost the kindle version a star) is that the text itself is full of mistakes, so that the flow of reading can be quite seriously disrupted. This is a great shame, as otherwise this is a brilliant version and definitely the electronic one I'd go for.
If you're interested in a more academic version of 'Madame Bovary' for your kindle with easily accessible notes and an interesting introduction, then go for this one.
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